The media has at last caught up with Jacques Rivette. His 773 minute magnum opus is now more readily available to more people on Earth than it ever was in the director's lifetime. Rivette died in January 2016 at age 87. In April, "Season One" of Out 1 hit Netflix. Before then, and before its recent DVD release, the complete work was little seen compared to Rivette's four-hour condensation, known as Out 1: Spectre. The full-length Out 1 (sometimes subtitled Noli Me Tangere or "Don't Touch") does seem ideally designed for modern binge-watching, so long as people can get past the alienating first episode. The thing runs in eight parts, each running sometime between 70 and 105 minutes. It requires patient immersion, since it begins by introducing characters, individually or in groups, with no more than thematic relationships with each other at first. As connections are established or revealed in subsequent episodes, the thing emerges as a small-scale conspiracy movie, and at the same time a satire of cinematic conspiracy mongering in its ultimate pointlessness. To me it seems like a story in a great French tradition that encompasses Fantomas and the works of Jean Rollin, but in a radically mundane Nouvelle Vague setting in which the struggle to create collaboratively becomes a symbol for all the efforts underway at the time to rethink or rework society, as seen from a largely apolitical perspective.
Episode One introduces two troupes of actors, each preparing a production of an Aeschylus play. We're shown to sharply contrasted approaches, neither of which has much to do with the text of the play. The Seven Against Thebes company, whom we see first, is directed by Lili (Michele Moretti) with a lot of attention to sound; the actors' pitch seems as important to Lili as whatever they say. As we'll see, Lili is dedicated to routine, if not ritual: her troupe always warms up with some dancersize set to a tribal beat that becomes the theme music of the entire series, played over each subsequent episode's recap montage. If Lili is obsessed with technical detail, Thomas (future Bond villain Michael Lonsdale), the director of Prometheus Bound, believes in spontaneous improvisation. His troupe's exercises seem far less relevant to their play than Lili's; they seem designed more toward building group cohesion and cooperation as ends unto itself. In fact, Thomas will often mention how bored he's grown with Prometheus. Described by one intimate as a big baby, Thomas emerges as an almost bullying emotional manipulator, not physically threatening at all but clearly determined to be the center of everyone's universe. These companies' efforts are intercut with the activities of an apparent loner, Colin (New Wave poster boy Jean-Pierre Leaud). Mute, he invades cafes distributing envelopes promising little bits of worldly wisdom, then subjecting diners to his shrieking harmonica until they give him money or he gives up. Inside the envelopes are random pages torn from Colin's book collection. Colin's counterpart is Frederique (Juliet Berto), an aspiring extortionist at the fringes of the underworld who playacts gunfights with herself while dreaming of a big grift. Early on, you get the impression that Out 1 is essentially about performance, Colin and Frederique being actors just as much as the thespians in the Aeschylus companies. Perhaps Rivette means that life is performance, or else a perpetual rehearsal for performances that will never take place.
Out 1 quickly becomes more than that. The crucial event is Colin's receipt from a stranger of a cryptic message in the form of a poem. Being quite literate, Colin recognizes the poem's mention of a "Thirteen" as a reference to Honore de Balzac's History of the Thirteen, part of the nineteenth century novelist's immense "Human Comedy" series. For the rest of the series he'll become obsessed with interpreting the poem and tracking down leads pointing toward the existence of a modern-day counterpart to Balzac's band of manipulators, eventually coming into contact with actors from both Aeschylus troupes, some of whom actually are part of a conspiratorial group of some sort. Late in the third episode he confirms most people's suspicions about him by beginning to speak. Meanwhile, when Frederique robs an apartment she discovers letters that should make ideal blackmail fodder, because they, too, seem to point to a secret society exposure of which could embarrass prominent people. Frederique stays at more of a remove from the actors but it's ultimately all connected. And for what it's worth, the five actors in Seven Against Thebes + the six in Prometheus Bound + Colin + Frederique = 13.
Moving right along, each acting troupe is disrupted by the arrival of a newcomer. For Seven Against Thebes it's Renaud (Alain Libolt), who simply crashes a rehearsal one day and erupts with novel staging ideas that alienate control-freak Lili. For Prometheus Bound it's Sarah (Bernadette Lafont), an old lover/collaborator of Thomas' whom he brings to Paris in the hope of sparking something. It's not clear whether that something is a creative breakthrough with the play or a threesome including Thomas's current girlfriend Beatrice (Edwine Moatti). Sarah's ideas only fouls up the Prometheus team's routine -- if you can call it that, -- while Renaud seems only to have been biding his time, perhaps presuming that someone in the Seven company must have money to rent the rehearsal space. As it turns out, one of Lili's actors wins a million francs at the race track, and Renaud wastes no time in stealing it. Their play is pretty much abandoned as the actors turn their attention to a futile-seeming manhunt. Their efforts to get Metro goers to recognize Renaud from a random photo lull us into a false sense of absurdity, for as we'll learn in another context, Lili is no one to trifle with. And while it seems impossible for the actors to track Renaud down, whom should he hook up with but Frederique, whose blackmailing efforts have been mixed to say the least. She'll learn the hard way that Renaud is no one to trifle with, either.
In fact, if you've been waiting for something to happen in Out 1, rest assured that shit gets real to a modest extent over the last third of the series. Rivette manages to generate real tension in some of the late encounters, especially two threatening scenes with Sarah, who terrifies Colin into ending his investigations. Being able to talk backwards will do that. Colin's quest has taken him repeatedly to a radical bookstore/head shop, where he grows infatuated with Pauline (Bulle Ogier), a secret-society member who ends up with blood on her hands. After scaring Colin away from Pauline aka Emilie, Sarah has an even more frightening encounter with Emilie back at her seaside home. Their repetitive exchanges (Emilie: "Stop looking at me like that!" Sarah: "I'm looking at you normally.") and Sarah's repeated invitations to Emilie to go to sleep may convince you that Emilie's life is on the line at that moment. But Out 1 doesn't really aspire to the sort of climax such scenes point toward; that neither the secret society nor the theater troupes' efforts really go anywhere really is the main point here. Appropriately, the whole thing closes -- to the extent that Rivette allows closure -- with Thomas, the man most dedicated to manipulating people for his own entertainment, being abandoned by his last hangers-on after one last stupid stunt.
Watching Out 1 is like reading a long novel. I often have to force my way through the first few dozen pages of the longer ones before I really get into it. Sometimes it takes that long to set things up, and in the better novels your patience is rewarded. I feel my patience with Out 1 was rewarded, but I wasn't really ever tempted to quit. Rivette has a solid ensemble of actors to hold our attention and his quasi-documentary approach to the rehearsals (especially with the more experimental Prometheus troupe) becomes fascinating. You wait for something to happen until you realize that this is the happening and there's a point to its pointlessness. These scenes remind me of the consciousness-raising exercises and dubious group dynamics of different kinds of radicals contemporary with Out 1's actors and conspirators, and I think Rivette really taps into a similar radicalism. Those perpetual rehearsals arguably serve as mild versions of other groups' struggle sessions, all aimed at the same vague goal of collective transformation into new social forms. At least that's what I see, or part of it. The virtue of something like Out 1 is that different people can see different things in it, and Rivette could probably answer all of us with "I meant to do that."